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Training for a brave new world

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There’s an old Jesuit maxim

“Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.”

This view assumed people were largely stuck with what they had become when they entered the world of work, and is still influential.

Similarly, educational institutions, including business schools sometimes like to give the impression that what they teach will endure a lifetime. But as Gratton and Scott point out in their 2016 book ‘The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity’, as more people live for a century or even longer, the three traditional stages of a working life, i.e. education, career and retirement will blur and break down.

Many people have been raised on the traditional notion of a three-stage approach to our working lives: education, followed by work and then retirement. But this well-established pathway is already beginning to collapse. Life expectancy is rising and increasing numbers of people are juggling multiple careers.

What then are the attributes that an aspiring twenty-something manager might require to thrive over her or his long career? Is it even possible to imagine such skills packaged into a neat curriculum? The most obvious is perhaps the least obviously teachable: adaptability.

Research indicates that young people entering the workforce now anticipate holding as many as 15 or 20 different jobs. Success will largely be determined not just by how good one plans, but how well one adapts to meet the changing needs of the customer.

As Gratton and Scott further note, flexibility is a particular trait of adolescents. Maintaining that adaptability into adulthood will be an important technique for the young generation to master. As the relationship between age and life stage changes, it will be more important than ever for generations to mix.

Collaboration will be a critical skill for generations that expect to work beyond their 90th year. The most interesting current research on leadership recognises that teams whose members acknowledge the particular expertise of other team members, mostly work better than teams governed from the top down by rigid command-and-control hierarchies.

Some of the most exciting changes in management are happening from the bottom up, as a wider variety of companies adopt “agile” methods of product and project management borrowed from software developers. Willingness to work in autonomous small teams, exercising decision-making power within the framework of a wider project, will be increasingly valuable.

While it is easy to underestimate the inertia of established corporate structures, only a few managers will find their careers mapped out through one company. Managers will need to gain experience of change, and how to work beyond the traditional corporation, in start-ups, social enterprises, non-governmental organisations and government.

At the same time, managers who want to thrive over their 60- or 70-year careers will need to assimilate softer aptitudes, not only in managing others but in managing themselves, both physically and mentally.

In the Digital era managers will have to be prepared for cognitive computing advances and be able to use the new tools and to work together with “co-bots”, collaborative robots and advanced software tools.

Two broad trends are shaping the digital age: an acceleration in the rate at which new technologies are adopted, and the ongoing disruption that these new technologies are causing to the economy. Hence, marked by constant technological breakthroughs that repeatedly disrupt the business world, the digital era will require workers to constantly re-educate themselves.

Whilst the workers will need to master new hard skills to keep up with advances in technology, they also will need to develop softer practical skills. That’s because tomorrow’s jobs will require workers who can create content or judge the relevance of information. More than one-third of jobs will require workers who can solve complex problems. About one in five jobs will need workers with social skills such as emotional intelligence, a service orientation, and the ability to negotiate and collaborate with others.

In addition, about 15 percent of jobs will require cognitive skills such as creativity and mathematical reasoning. In fact, creativity will become one of the most important skills for the workforce, because creative people will invent new business models, products, ways of working, and customer experiences.

As for what such a curriculum would look like, part of it will be built by the managers themselves. More people will decide to manage their own learning experiences before they join a corporation. They will need to keep their options open by becoming path finders or independent producers, gathering up experiences and honing their skills, sometimes before embarking on full-time education or sometimes, later.

Business schools will have to be agile, especially in recognising this and offer a range of options that allow for the accumulation of vital current specialisations, while staying open to the attributes that may be necessary decades hence. Likewise, students aspiring for an enduring livelihood will have to own their careers and not depend solely on business schools that provide them with contemporary skills and competencies.

In this respect, the most important way business schools can future-proof existing courses is by offering existing students options for their future education. They will have to acquire knowledge of an area that they, let alone their teachers, cannot imagine today. This is the new reality – imagine being educated for a world that does not exist today.

This perspective insists that work-seekers take ownership of their own career, rather than allowing any organisation to do that. Lifetime employment is no longer viable, the future is unpredictable, and the only party that can make sense of where you’ve been, and what that can mean in the future, is you.

The concept of career ownership is becoming increasingly recognised by researchers, especially in their reporting of project-based learning, where both organisation strategies and individual careers seem to intersect. Collaboration will be a critical skill for generations that expect to work beyond their 90th year.

Thus, by taking hold of and maintaining ownership of one’s career, one will be contributing to, rather than deferring to, any organisation’s view of one’s work. The aspiring job-seeker will be letting go of an arrangement tracing back to the factory shop floor, and joining a wider movement seeking to re-claim responsibility for their careers.

Flexibility in adulthood will become key for success and maintaining adaptability into adulthood will be an important technique for the young generation to master. As the relationship between age and life stage changes, it will be more important than ever for generations to mix. An educational or career experience that does not expose younger workers to older colleagues, and vice versa, will handicap both groups.

A McKinsey Global Institute Study of 2015 concluded that current technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform, technology could automate 30 percent or more of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations. These technological innovations will have a profound impact on the economy and jobs.

At the heart of the challenge of the transformations associated with longevity is the traditional three stage life. Not only has this been the dominant career narrative for nearly a century, but it has also led corporations to focus on linear career models that emphasize the accumulation of financial assets.

Taken together, these trends indicate that workers can no longer expect to be employed at one or two firms for their entire careers, using skills they mastered in their 20s. This also suggests that business schools must be prepared to deliver the skills and experiences that will ensure that tomorrow’s workers are employable for as long as they want to hold jobs.

Finally, as the above indicates, if lifelong education becomes standard operating procedure for the digital era, business schools will have a tremendous opportunity to serve a wide variety of learners and consequently, the business of career development at business schools will not be as usual.

Paresh Soni Associate Director: MANCOSA Graduate School of Business 

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